It’s an important difference!
I won’t have trouble gaining consensus on the virtue of telling the truth. As kids and teens, many of us told some lies to avoid getting into trouble, or even some tall tales to impress friends. But most of us outgrew that behavior as we developed a conscience, a sense of responsibility, and appreciation for the role of truthfulness and trust in relationships.
However, there are some people who continue to tell lies as adults. Many of us may tell the occasional “white lie,” something innocent or benign when a child is not ready for the “raw” truth or when we are seeking to avoid needlessly hurting someone’s feelings. But that’s not the type of lying that tarnishes the integrity and veracity we associate with good moral character.
It’s when others seek to deceive us that we begin to question their character. Even then, there are differences in motivation that distinguish malicious lying from what I’d like to call “telling stories.” The malicious lying intends to deceive, manipulate, or otherwise take advantage of others. It’s deliberate and willful. Telling stories is different. It is motivated by insecurities and needs for approval.
Intentions and Consequences
We can agree that malicious lying is bad. As described, it is by definition self-serving and intended to exploit others. Telling stories, on the other hand, is a practice that can arise out of fears that one is not good enough or that telling the truth might entail consequences one can’t handle. The major difference, then, is that if the feared consequences are mitigated, the story teller may be able tell the truth.
I believe this difference is important. And it goes to a distinction between being moral and being moralistic. Being moral in our attitude and orientation toward truth-telling and lying implies evaluating what is good, right, and proper. Being moralistic implies a readiness to find fault and judge others too quickly and without considering mitigating factors that affect their motivations and behavior.
An Example: The Gambler
A man secretly sought to multiply his savings, which were to go toward a down payment on a home for him and his fiancé, by gambling. But he lost and kept losing until his savings were depleted. By the time they had agreed they would begin actively shopping for and purchasing a home, he was forced to tell the truth, which he had withheld from her for almost a year. It threw the couple into a tail spin.
While working with the couple, it became clear that she was troubled mostly by the fact that he was capable of deceiving her and lying about how the savings were growing. She too had been saving her share. And she said at one point, “He seemed so good at it [i.e., the lying]. It seemed so easy for him to do it. How can I ever trust him again?” That’s what it looked like to her.
What we soon learned, however, is that inside he was feeling terribly guilty, intensely anxious, afraid that if she found out she would leave him. He could not see a way to discuss his mistakes with her. It was something that simply did not seem discussable to him. He was ashamed, afraid, and felt incompetent to talk this issue through with her.
Eliminating the Need for Stories
For this couple, discovering what made telling stories feel necessary for him, helped her see his actions and motivations differently. He’d always been less able and ready to express his feelings and examine emotionally charged issues more deeply as compared to her. Instead, he would appear more stone-faced and express readiness to concede an issue in order halt further discussion.
In the presence of a third party, however, their individual differences in personality, life experience, and openness to engaging in difficult conversations became more discussable. Based on understanding these differences and how they affect their communications, they were able to learn how to navigate these kinds of conversations more effectively.
They came to see that their most important operating principle was a commitment to creating the conditions that promote truth-telling. By focusing on these conditions, they found that it also made it easier for them to raise issues sooner, to deal with issues on a timelier basis, knowing that it would never be quite as difficult to work through them as it might initially seem.